The Class of 1970: The Mothers of Invention — ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’
1970 was a red-letter year for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. After five albums on the Verve label from 1966-68, Zappa took his business to Warner Brothers, creating his own Bizarre label and another called Straight. In 1969, The Mothers of Invention released the amazing double-album Uncle Meat, and Zappa issued his landmark solo effort Hot Rats.
As was Zappa’s habit, he kept a voluminous library of recorded music and studio tracks, which he intermixed in stunning permutations and combinations. That accounted for the three albums issued in 1970:
02/09/70 MOI: Burnt Weeny Sandwich — recorded 1967-69
08/10/70 MOI: Weasels Ripped My Flesh — recorded 1967-69
10/23/70 FZ: Chunga’s Revenge — recorded 1969-70
We’ll tackle these one at a time.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich
Burnt Weeny Sandwich was primarily an instrumental album stuck between two doo wop tunes harkening back to Zappa’s younger days. There was a superb five-song suite, a beautiful piano solo, and one titanic long track that is still mind-blowing.
PERSONNEL: Frank Zappa – guitar, organ, vocals; Jimmy Carl Black –percussion, drums; Roy Estrada – bass, backing vocals, Pachuco rap on “WPLJ”; Janet Ferguson – backing vocals on “WPLJ”; Bunk Gardner – wind; Buzz Gardner – trumpet; Billy Mundi – drums (uncredited, left group in December 1967, pictured on gatefold cover and possibly played on “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich”); Lowell George – guitar, vocals; Don “Sugarcane” Harris – violin on “The Little House I Used to Live In”; Don Preston – piano, keyboards; Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood – wind; Art Tripp – drums, percussion; Ian Underwood – piano, keyboards, wind; and John Balkin – bass on “WPLJ”, string bass on “Overture to a Holiday in Berlin”.
The opening doo wop song, “WPLJ,” was a cover of a 1955 song by The 4 Deuces. The initials stand for “White Port and Lemon Juice,” a “real fine wine.” When WABC-FM separated itself from its top-40 AM powerhouse partner, the name was changed to WPLJ as the station went to an AOR format (album-oriented rock), based on Zappa’s cover of the song. This song could have been on Cruising with Ruben and the Jets.
The next suite of tunes, with five tracks over 13 and a half minutes, takes some of the great jazz of Uncle Meat to another level. The first, “Igor’s Boogie, Phase One,” is a short 0:37, all manner of wind instruments propped up by rhythmic percussion. Underwood, Bunk Gardner, and Sherwood deserve great credit for the woodwinds on all these tracks. “Overture to A Holiday in Berlin” features harpsichord, lots more percussion, and twin saxes that sound almost off-key, but of course Zappa wrote it precisely like that.
“Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” is the best indication on record to this point of Zappa’s brilliance as a guitarist, lots of wah-wah here, too. Percussion, organ, and vibes fill the space. “Igor’s Boogie, Phase One” is another short piece of similar composition to “Phase One.”
The theme explodes in “Holiday in Berlin, Full Blown.” Piano and flutes or piccolos open, then the bass and drums fall in. The beauty of the song is remarkable. A gorgeous tenor solo follows, straight from the sound of “America Drinks and Goes Home” on Absolutely Free. Then reeds play in tandem, vibes and percussion abound, and halfway through Zappa emerges. This is how you play wah-wah guitar. Those double drums are favorites of many Zappa fans.
“Aybe Sea” is a piano solo by Ian Underwood. Zappa plays acoustic guitar, and it is likely Preston on harpsichord.
“The Little House I Used to Live In” is a composition of several distinct parts that certainly works as a unit. When the Hot Rats 50th Anniversary box set was released last year, we learned that two important segments of “Little House” came from a truly titanic 28-minute jam featuring Zappa, Preston, Estrada, Black, and “Sugarcane Harris.”
The opening 1:45 is another beautiful unaccompanied Underwood piano solo. Suddenly, the tune opens up to a bouncing rocker washed with organ, drums pulsing, horns working overtime, and more delicious wah-wah guitar. At 4:22, Zappa takes a fine solo backed by drums.
Enter Harris (5:10). The bass is rumbling something fierce, and then they take OFF. This is the most badass swing violin you will ever hear, Zappa comping in the background. Preston on piano is superb underneath it all before he launches into a great solo. Harris swings back in. Black is keeping great time, and Estrada crushes the bass.
At 13:39, there is an almost classical section, reeds, harpsichord, vibes, and more. The oboes are awesome. Just as that seems to settle in, it yields to a live section with Zappa on organ. It is almost frantic as the drums drive everyone forward. As Zappa says, “Thank you, good night,” amidst the applause the voice of a heckler rises. “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.”
Finally, they cover “Valarie,” a doo wop song done by Jackie and the Starlites in 1960. The guitar is deluxe.
That takes care of the first of Zappa’s entries in The Class on 1970.